Rugby Union: Twickenham lost in a world of its own

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The Independent Online
BAD TIDINGS, like the No 27 bus, come in threes. First the Rugby Football Union declared a loss of pounds 4m. Next, they were summoned to appear before the International Rugby Board tribunal to explain their position in relation to their clubs and the challenge in the European court to the games regulations. Then, last week, they were threatened with the removal of their World Cup games from Twickenham unless they were able to deliver a "clean" ground in compliance with the tournament staging agreement.

The problem concerns the corporate hospitality arrangements at Twickenham and the deal struck four years ago with the RFU's agents, Peter Parfitt Sport, who have exclusive rights to the two prime hospitality restaurants, Obolensky's and Wakefield's. When the agreement was signed it was on the understanding that PPS would be able to sell hospitality packages in those areas for the 1999 World Cup. Despite numerous warnings of the likely problems in delivery of the facilities and despite the fact that, as joint hosts of the 1991 World Cup, they must have known about and clearly understood the concept of the "clean" ground (one without any contractual commitments for perimeter advertising or corporate hospitality) the RFU pressed on regardless.

During the past six months, however, Rugby World Cup Ltd, the tournament organisers, have become increasingly bullish on the subject and last week sent a letter to Robert Horner, the RFU's representative dealing with World Cup matters, threatening the RFU with the removal of all World Cup matches at Twickenham unless they were able to comply with the terms of the agreement. This requires them to make all Twickenham's hospitality sites available to the consortium charged with the responsibility of selling World Cup packages.

The problems at Twickenham are made worse by the fact that the official hospitality facilities are located some distance from the ground, whereas pirate operators like Mike Burton are virtually on site. The two choice areas are, of course, Obolensky's and Wakefield's and understandably PPS have been doing everything in their power to hold on to them.

They have been placed in a very difficult position. They have invested a substantial amount in their hospitality business at Twickenham and the World Cup was presumably a major factor in their decision to do the deal with the RFU. Quite apart from the financial aspect PPS are concerned that if the RFU back down and agree to RWC's demands for a clean ground, the company will lose the goodwill and trust of clients who are expecting World Cup packages. But they must also be aware of the danger that might be done to their relationship with the RFU should the question of financial compensation arise. Negotiations between the RFU and RWC are continuing and Mike Wheeler, the managing director of PPS, expects to hear the outcome within the next 48 hours.

A compromise, satisfactory to both parties, should be possible. In fairness to the RFU, the principle of the clean ground is difficult to enforce. It is only natural for ground authorities to want to maximise the revenue potential for major events such as World Cups whether it be football, rugby or cricket and it does appear unreasonable for the tournament organisers to make such demands when many contracts are signed years in advance.

With their troubles mounting on the world front the RFU may be forgiven for turning to the conspiracy theory as the reason for their increasing isolation. Following Brian Baister's election as chairman of the RFU's Board of Management last summer, he announced that one of his priorities would be the restoration of England's good name in the committee room of world rugby. Yet they are being assailed on all sides, and despite their protestations of innocence they have brought much of it on their own heads. Does it not strike the membership as even mildly absurd that it is the IRB, resisted all the way along the line by Twickenham, who are battling to preserve the RFU's right to govern and control their own affairs? It was not until beyond the 11th hour that the RFU's response to the club's challenge to their regulations was submitted to Brussels, and the content of that response is unlikely to find favour with the IRB. I understand that parts of it are at variants with the IRB's submission, and although not fully supportive of the clubs the RFU are clearly not on the same wavelength as the world's governing body. This is certain to create a certain frisson at the meeting next month when the RFU have to appear before the IRB's tribunal.

The problem is that Twickenham is becoming increasingly detached from the RFU. The members of the Board of Management no longer represent the bodies who elected them. They are not speaking and acting on behalf of the game but for themselves. Many of their actions are not even known by the Council members let alone agreed by them. There are troubled times ahead and all the while the game, with its mounting debt and diminishing returns, is careering towards the precipice.

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